Like most healthy 24 year olds, I rarely want to think about my own eventual death. Yes, I’ve had moments when my own end-of life wishes occurred to me — when I’ve heard stories on the news about lives lost too young, for example — but they were uncomfortable thoughts I pushed to the back of my mind.
Thinking about death, either of a loved one or my own mortality, can be uncomfortable, but the importance of expressing your end-of-life wishes and naming a health care proxy has become so clear to me in the past few months.
In January, I started working for The Conversation Project (TCP), which aims to transform our culture so we talk openly about dying and communicate to others our end-of-life wishes. Suddenly, this topic I avoided for so long seemed to be everywhere I looked. In the past few months, I’ve come to appreciate why even Millennials should express our end-of-life wishes and name a health care proxy.
A knowledge gap
If you had asked me a few months ago what a health care proxy was, I couldn’t have told you. Now I know that a health care proxy (also called a health care agent or Power of Attorney for Health Care) is the person you choose to make health care decisions if you’re ever too sick to make them for yourself. Likewise, I know that a health care proxy is also the legal document in which you designate the person to make medical decisions for you. I learned all this in preparation for TCP’s release of the new How to Choose a Health Care Proxy & How to Be a Health Care Proxy kit.
There seems to be a knowledge gap regarding health care proxies. When I started asking around, I found that only my peers who work in health care knew what they were. Two of my best friends are nurses in Boston. Rachel is an ICU nurse and deals with end-of-life issues every day. She sees people stuck in medical limbo when they haven’t made their wishes explicitly clear or they don’t have a health care proxy designated who can make an informed decision on the patient’s behalf.
Jacqui, a nurse on a surgical unit, told me she is her mother’s health care proxy and her brother’s secondary proxy. Her family knows that she has experience navigating the health care system and trusts her to knowledgeably speak for them.
My friends who do not work in health care were unfamiliar with the term “health care proxy.” Most assumed their parents would speak on their behalf, if needed. Like me, they didn’t realize that their parents are automatically their proxy only up until they’re 18. They didn’t know that after 18, no one — not even their parents — can legally access their medical record or make decisions for them unless they have written permission.
Making it a priority
Speaking from experience, when you believe death is far down the road, it just doesn’t seem necessary to put it at the top of your “to do” list. Most Millennials won’t run out and identify a health care proxy even after they learn that their parents can’t automatically speak for them in the midst of a medical crisis. But we should.
If you’re a Millennial — or if you have one in your life — here’s why it’s important to consider choosing a health care proxy:
- It can help you take ownership of your health – By having a conversation with someone you trust to be your health care proxy (and completing the health care proxy form!), you increase your chances of getting the care you want even when you can’t speak for yourself.
- It means someone has your back — The health care system is increasingly complicated to navigate, especially for non-health professionals. You need someone who is familiar with your end-of-life care wishes who will stand up for you when you’re at your most vulnerable. This person can be a friend, family member, or anyone you believe will respect your wishes.
- It can spare your loved ones unnecessary pain — If you ever got so sick that you needed a person to talk with your health care providers on your behalf, your family and friends who care about you would be under enormous stress. Think about how making your wishes known and choosing a proxy in advance could spare your loved ones the pain that comes from doubt and uncertainty.
Tips to get started
If talking about death makes you uncomfortable, use your state’s proxy form as a conversation starter. Millennials are known as a generation that communicates often, let’s communicate about our health care wishes. Choosing a health care proxy and sharing your end-of-life care wishes doesn’t need to be scary, it can be empowering. Put it at the top of your “to do” list! Consult the How to Choose a Health Care Proxy & How to Be a Health Care Proxy guide for more advice.